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27 Apr 2014

Shock and Awe in New York City

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April 27, 2014 Category: Travel Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO:  The Obamas in wax.


By Renée S. Gordon

“Now you’re in New York! These streets will make you feel brand new, 

Big lights will inspire you, Hear it for New York, New York, New York!”

–Alicia Keys, Empire State of Mind

Over the years I have visited New York City hundreds of times. I have arrived by airplane, rail, automobile and bus, but no matter how I travel when I plant my feet in Manhattan on 42nd and Broadway I feel the familiar sensory overload, the sights, sounds, smells and the awe that comes with being part of the action on the most dynamic island in the world. There is no bad time to go to see something new, different and exciting. New York is a treasure for all seasons.

When people speak of going to New York they usually mean Manhattan, the tiniest of the Five Boroughs, the others being the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island. Manhattan, 13.4-miles long and 2.3-miles at its widest point, is divided into three distinct areas and the East and West Sides. The entire island is 22.8-sq. miles. Downtown extends from Battery Park to 34th Street, Midtown runs from 34th to 59th and Uptown is measured from 59th through Harlem to Marble Hill.

The heart of Times Square is Broadway and 42nd Street with 42nd Street being the spine of its east/west corridor. In the early 1990s the city, recognizing the fact that the area was considered seedy and unsafe, began a revitalization program. The program developed family-oriented venues in the form of historic theaters, trendy restaurants, shops and entertainment attractions and 26-million annual visitors to the district followed. Currently, there is so much to do on the strip between 7th and 8th Avenues on 42nd Street that one can easily spend a day on that single block. 

You can’t miss Madame Tussauds of New York, not just because it is located at 234 W. 42nd Street but because of the crowd clustered around the “star” placed at the entrance. Tussauds New York wax museum opened in 2000 with nine floors and 85,000 sq. ft. of interactive fun. Visitors can immerse themselves in the lives of the famous as they wander through thematic settings that allow you to touch and pose with the figures.  

Madame Tussaud herself stands benignly in a gallery filled with political figures and both she and her story are featured at the end of the tour. She was born in 1761 in France. Her mother worked for Dr. Philippe Curtius in Bern after the death of her father. After moving to Paris, Curtius, a medical doctor, gained prominence as a wax sculptor of anatomical models but expanded to crafting wax portraits. He began exhibiting his works and added the Caverne des Grands Voleurs, “the Cavern of the Great Thieves,” in 1782. This display was the forerunner of London’s Chamber of Horrors in Madame Tussaud’s. Marie learned the art of wax sculpting while working with Custius.

The French Revolution began in 1789 and four years later Marie was made to create death masks from the guillotined heads of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. In 1790, Marie was arrested, along with Joséphine de Beauharnais, later married to Napoleon, during the Reign of Terror. Her incredible sculpting ability saved her from execution and she was released from prison to make a death mask of Robespierre.  For the remainder of the Reign she was compelled to search through piles of the dead to locate heads of prominent victims for replication and to be carried around Paris. The revolution leaders used them to prove to the masses that the elite had been made to pay for their crimes against the state.

Upon Curtius’ death, Marie inherited his collection and in 1802 she moved to London and toured her exhibits around the country. In 1835, she established a permanent gallery in London with a separate room displaying her collection of beheaded individuals. This eventually became the world renowned Chamber of Horrors that displays notorious criminals. The Chamber has reached such a level of fame that condemned criminals have been known to send their clothing in hopes that they will become exhibited figures after execution. 

Tours of the New York museum begin with the quintessential photo op, you, the Empire State Building and King Kong. An elevator whisks you to the 9th-floor where you are an invited guest at a party populated with all the current newsworthy stars. This is your opportunity to join the party and “literally” rub shoulders with Morgan Freeman, Merrill Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad  Pitt and Angelina Jolie. 

Figures are crafted over a three to four month period with the human hair, each strand implanted individually, taking six weeks. The creation of the wax figure begins with more than 375 measurements and photographs being taken. More than 20 artists are involved with the process and each figure costs approximately $220,000. People often donate their own clothing and their personal hair stylists and make-up artists can be involved to assure accuracy.

The Gallery is filled with international political and religious figures from Lincoln to the Pope. A focal point of this showcase is the Oval Office complete with First Lady Michelle and President Barack Obama. Visitors can have a professional picture taken with them. A homage to New York is one of my favorite displays. Here you can join a worker for lunch on a skyscraper girder, sit next to Woody Allen on a park bench, ride in an iconic yellow cab, climb into the Statue of Liberty’s crown, and join Alicia Keyes as she serenades the city. Additional galleries are also thematic and include 60s and current groundbreaking music makers, Bollywood, and a Sports Zone. 

The Marvel Super Heroes 4D Experience is a new addition to the museum located on the sixth floor. Prior to entering the theater you must manage to pass the Hulk, Iron Man and the intense scrutiny of Nick Fury.                                                       

Madame Tussauds is, for the most part, low-tech and that is the beauty of it. You can mix, mug, mingle and become an integral part of each tableau.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not is located immediately next door at 234 W. 42nd Street. The collection consists of two floors of curiosities, oddities and unique creatures showcased from floor to ceiling in imaginative ways. Robert Leroy Ripley, a cartoonist, broadcaster, filmmaker and author born in California on December 25, 1893, established the collection. Originally he exhibited parts of his collection in his “Odditoriums.”

He moved to New York to become a sports cartoonist for the Globe in 1913. One day in 1918, he made the decision to draw a nine panel cartoon with strange sports facts. People so loved the cartoons that he was asked to continue, he did, and added quirky facts from other classifications. He died in 1949 and during his lifetime traveled to more than 200 countries collecting curiosities. He was the first cartoonist to earn $1 million. A memorial in Santa Rosa, his city of birth, is a church carved from a single California Redwood. 

Your Ripley’s tour begins in the foyer with a life-sized elephant displayed in full elephant armor. Other exhibits on the first level include the world’s tallest man and Johnny Eck. Eck was born a twin with no body parts below his torso. He lived to be 71 years old.                          

On the second level the galleries are thematic and include freaks of nature, extraordinary artworks, international artifacts and cultural physical oddities. Willard Wigan, an Afro-British sculptor whose works are smaller than the eye of a needle and can only be viewed through a microscope, are showcased. A room is devoted to authentic shrunken heads and visitors can read interpretive panels so they can practice back at home. Near the end of the tour you enter the “Dark Side” gallery filled with medieval torture devices including an Iron Maiden, Executioner’s Sword, Mongolian Starvation Box and chastity belt. Many of the exhibits are interactive, the most popular of which is a walk-thru black hole. “Believe it or not!”

It is always fun to venture a little further afield and the Chelsea neighborhood is a wonderful area for enjoyable and free exploration. It extends from 14th to 30th Street and west of 6th Avenue to the Hudson River. The most significant early settlement took place in 1750 when Captain Thomas Clarke purchased a 94-acre plot of land from west 21st to 24th Streets. He named his farm Chelsea after the neighborhood in which he lived in England. His grandson, Clement Moore, inherited the land in 1813. Aside from writing “The Night Before Christmas,” Moore was a teacher and a philanthropist, donating land for the construction of the General Theological Seminary. 

Developers constructed a row of houses in the 19th-century. These eight houses are today part of the Lamartine Place Historic District. The most significant of these buildings was the home of Abby and James Gibbons at 339 W. 29th Street. They hosted noted abolitionists of the day including Garrison, the Grimké   sisters, Robert Purvis and John Brown. The house also served as a station on the Underground Railroad and is one of the few extant UGRR stations in the city. Lamartine Place was designated a Historic District in 2009 based upon its historic importance to the stories of the UGRR and the NY Civil War Draft Riots. 

We may all know the Muffin Man but do you know where he lived? Samuel Thomas left England with high hopes and a muffin recipe in 1874. By 1880, he had constructed a bakery on 9th Avenue. Recently in an adjacent apartment building at 337 W. 20th Street the owners found the room-sized oven that belonged to Thomas. The oven is 15-ft. by 20-ft. and was built by the baker to meet the tremendous demands of his business.

NY’s High Line opened on June 9, 2009 with a second section being added in 2011. This derelict elevated railroad line has been repurposed and is now a public park that runs from Gansevoort to 34th Street, through the heart of historic West Chelsea. Public programs are offered including stargazing and free-guided tours. There are nine access points that are described online.

The Chelsea Hotel, 222 West 23rd Street, is so legendary that it almost defies description. Built between 1883 and 1885, it was one of the city’s first co-ops and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977. The list of residents includes, Sherwood Anderson, Jim Hendrix, Betsey Johnson, Janis Joplin, Madonna, Robert Mapplethorpe, Edgar Lee Masters, Arthur Miller, Mark Twain, Sid Vicious, Andy Warhol, Thomas Wolfe and countless others. Dylan Thomas and Nancy Spungen died there. Arthur C. Clarke wrote “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Bob Dylan wrote “Sara” while in residence.

I am sad to report that you can only view the Chelsea from the exterior because it closed for a complete renovation in 2011. The only people who continue to live there are long -term residents.

Chelsea Piers represents another creative reuse of existing structures. Situated at 23rd Street and the West Side highway, these four abandoned piers were revamped into a gigantic sports complex and boasts the largest health club in NYC. There is a list of activities as well as training camps and space is available for rental. This is an ideal place to simply soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the view.

 I wish you smooth travels!

Travel Tips:

The 81st Annual Dover Days Festival, the largest free festival in the county, will be held in Dover Delaware May 2-4. “Dover Days Dresses Downton’’ is filled with creative events, lectures, activities all designed thematically around wildly popular series “Downton Abby.” Highlights of the festival are visits by African American millionaire Madam C. J. Walker, entrepreneur John Wanamaker and Negro Baseball Leaguer William “Judy” Johnson. Visitors can also learn all about the outer and undergarments of an elegant Edwardian couple wore, stop at a speakeasy and ride in an authentic 1910 Stanley Steamer. This makes a wonderful family outing.

Bermuda is inviting everyone to paradise with its So Much More Summer offer. Guests can get a $200 resort credit if they book participating resorts by May 15th for travel between May 1 and September 1, 2014.

The nine wineries of the Bucks County Wine Trail are hosting their annual spring, two-part tour. Tours will take place from 12 PM to 5 PM on May 4th, the Southern Route, and on May 18th guests will explore Northern Route. The tour is a self-guided driving tour. Complete information, including fees, is online.

Sandy Stein, a retired Delta flight attendant, hasvcombined her expertise and experience to develop a line of products that take some of the hassle out of travel whether it is around town or around the world. The Finders Key Purse is designed to keep your keys and/or cell phone readily available by means of a decorative clasp that attaches to your handbag. My favorite item in the product line is the “Not Just a Luggage Tag” that attaches to your purse or travel bag. The tag is designed to hold your credit cards, ID and room key prevent lost items or fumbling or things in a potentially unsafe situation. The Finders Key Purse can save you time, trouble and possibly your life.

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